After four months, 825 miles, two million steps, 7.5 million snapshots and waaaay more naked old people than they care to remember, a trekking team of human cameras trudged into South Pointe Park on Wednesday, finishing the task of photographing all Florida’s beaches for Google Maps.
“It’s certainly the strangest job I’ve ever had,” said David DeLong of Tampa, one of four men who tramped up and down the coast wearing 45-pound backpacks loaded with 15 cameras, a hard drive and a modem. “And at the beginning, before I got adjusted to the backpack, it was kind of tough.
“But it’s like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer — it feels great when you stop.”
The trek was part of a cooperative venture between the giant Internet company Google and Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency. The photos will be stitched together into panoramic, 360-degree views of every inch of coastline beach that, sometime next spring, will be available online through Google Maps’ Street View.
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“It will have a lot of uses,” said Nelson Mongiovi, a Visit Florida project manager. The Florida Film Commission loves it — Hollywood producers will be able to scout locations without getting on a plane. Government agencies can use it to help measure beach erosion.
“But, primarily, it’s marketing Florida from a digital platform. People can take a virtual tour of Florida beaches from their homes and decide which ones they want to visit. Beaches have different personalities: They might be family-oriented. They might be nude beaches. They might be pet-friendly. This will let visitors get a 360-degree look in advance.”
It was those nude beaches that took the greatest toll on the four trekkers, at least in terms of shattered illusions. “It was pretty hot and pretty hard going when we started in August,” Mongiovi said. “And some of the guys, I think, were keeping themselves going with the idea that, hey, soon we’ll pass through some nude beaches.
“But when we reached the first one, one of the guys told me: ‘The dream died yesterday’… It turns out most of the people who hang out on nude beaches should probably keep their clothes on.”
Other obstacles included seawalls, coastal condos that took a you-and-whose-army attitude when reminded that state law says beaches are open to the public, dive-bombing birds and the occasional mangrove swamp. DeLong still shudders at the memory of a spot on Keewaydin Island off Naples, where he had to wade through murky thigh-high water.
“The footing was really uncertain, and you’re carrying a backpack with who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars in gear inside, and thinking about what happens if you slip,” the 55-year-old DeLong said. “That’s a phone call you just don’t want to have to make.”
Mostly, though, the scenery was beautiful or fascinating or both. The trekkers, who worked in two teams, spotted osprey snacking on fish and baby turtles taking their first swim. They saw dolphins leaping joyously and sharks circling ominously.
What they didn’t see, for hours and sometimes days at a time, were other people.
“It was being able to spend days with no other people around,” said trekker Gregg Matthews, 49, of Tallahassee. “Just me, the wind, the waves, the birds.… It kind of makes you realize how small you are in the scheme of things.”
When other people were around, the trekkers themselves were often the most interesting thing in the scenery. Attached to their backpacks were long metal stalks topped with a green ball that housed the 15 camera lenses, which snapped away every 15 seconds.
The trekkers were mistaken for everything from exotic para-sailors to experimental jet-pack pilots. Their explanations didn’t always clarify things. “Some of the older people didn’t know what Google was,” said 30-year-old Chris Officer of Miami Beach.
That may explain why the trekkers were only rarely confronted with one of the most frequent complaints about Google’s various photo-mapping projects — that their carpet-bombing approach to photographs is an invasion of privacy.
“There was only one person who brought that up, a woman in Palm Beach,” DeLong said. “She was pretty irritated: ‘We already don’t have enough privacy, and now this!’ And I’m like, ‘It’s a public beach, OK?’ ”